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For the love of the game #2 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford United

What else was I going to do on the final Saturday of the League One season? I travelled to The Kassam Stadium, Oxford, in search of football’s heart and soul.

Like a shadowy horned spectre, anxiety and depression sometimes haunts me. It’s good to talk.  As I lay in bed this morning, researching ahead of next Saturday’s visit to The Kassam Stadium, Oxford, I am tragically reminded that I am not alone. Joey Beauchamp, Oxford club legend, died in February this year, cause of death, hanging. He was just fifty.

I trawl through news articles, blogs and social media and discover plenty. Oxford United (the Us) sit just outside the play offs, in eighth) with just two games to go. First, they have a difficult away game at Rotherham, who are second and chasing automatic promotion. Then the final game of the season: the one I am going to: Doncaster at home.

Home, for Oxford United, is the Kassam Stadium. Many say it is not their spiritual home and I become desperate to find out more.

The Manor Ground, which had been home to the U’s since 1925 (who were known as Headington until 1960 when they became Oxford), was a fortress in the early 1980s. The atmosphere, I read, could go from 1 to 10,000 in an instant. Although I wonder what the hell that means, I get the gist.

The Manor Ground, Oxford

I recall Oxford in their yellow shirts climbing the leagues quickly up to the old Division 1. I recall they had a lively ‘crew’ back then. I think back to the League Cup Final they won, beating QPR at Wembley in front of 90,396. It was the Milk cup in 1986.  I read up a little more and further memories, that I think are lost, are triggered.

The old Manor Ground was becoming dilapidated by the mid-1990s. With the publication of The Taylor Report in 1990, the cost of converting the stadium to an all-seated one ruled out staying at Osler Road. With a wooden stand, asbestos filled roofs, and crumbling terracing the writing was on the wall.

I gather that the three sided Kassam Stadium is generally disliked by both home and away fans. I discover that the lease runs out and in 2026 and the club have their eye on a preferred site in Stratfield Brake. I am surprised to learn that the club believe that an 18,000 capacity stadium will be big enough given the 250,000 registered Oxford fans.

Saturday 23rd April 2022
Rotherham United 2, Oxford United 1

It’s Sunday morning and the inquest has begun. The U’s have missed out on the playoffs after a 2-1 defeat at Rotherham and the dream is over for another year. I read a tweet from @swissyellow who blames a poor transfer window in January for missing out on promotion. @DBoufc is already mapping out which players deserve a new contract and who the boss needs to sign in the summer. Ironically, he says he’s holding a minute’s silence in his house – in memory of the season and when the yellows were flying high in a playoff spot in the table.

It’s the Monday before my visit, and I am reading a tweet from Karl Robinson’s partner. She thanks the fans for supporting her husband and reminds them how hard Karl works. This gets a great response from the U’s fans on the platform.

I wake up early on the morning of the match. This morning, I’m in a hotel with my wife, in Birmingham. We’ve been to see Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan); a birthday present from my beloved. Today, Tracy is joining me at Oxford.

We arrive an hour and twenty before kick-off and find a parking space behind the East Stand. I pick up a programme and, after a quick look around the memorabilia stall, we take our seats in the South Stand Lower, right behind the away bench. Sat close to the half-way line, we are surrounded by mostly older fans. I resolve to pay attention to what they are saying, if I can. I hear “It’s Trevor’s last game,” and I am drawn in. Referee, Trevor Kettle, is taking charge of today’s match; it will be his last. He is retiring after the match today. A quick search on my phone and I find out what all the fuss is about. Kettle is not a popular referee. Just before kick-off, when his name is announced, he is roundly booed.

The match starts in a lively manner and, after six minutes, the influential Oxford captain, Cameron Brannagan, fires over from eight yards out, following some good work down the right. I comment to one of the ‘old boys’ near me that Brannagan probably had the rest of the afternoon to bring that one down and he smiles.

For Doncaster, Josh Martin playing in a free role catches my eye. He is good on the ball and glides with it on the run. He will be difficult to stop today.

The U’s take the lead on twenty-two minutes. Matty Taylor’s fierce shot from a tight angle is parried up into the air and bundled over the line at the far post by Billy Bodin. It’s a scrappy goal but one that Oxford deserved on the balance of play. I agree with the ‘old boys’ in their assessment: the keeper should have done better.

At the back for Oxford, Luke McNally, shows potential. He is physical and rangy. On the right side of a three man defence, he has the freedom to bring the ball out and start attacking moves. The Oxford fans sing his name. On the left hand side, Oxford’s Young Player of the Year, seventeen-year-old James Golding is having a decent game. Just before half-time, he makes a surging run down the left before threading a ball through to Williams who crashes the ball against the post from twenty yards. In front of us, Karl Robinson is happy with the youngster.

Tracy (my wife) heads down early for half-time snacks but the queue is already long and service in the South Stand Lower is a little slow. As the second half kicks off, she arrives with the coffees and hot dogs.

Oxford start the second half nervous in possession at the back and the ‘old boys’ start to shake their heads. They seem to have seen it all before. There is no high press from Doncaster and Oxford have no need to be so negative. The U’s struggle to get the ball into midfield areas and Brannagan’s influence on the game diminishes. Doncaster’s Josh Martin is running the show now and has a pop from twenty-five yards that fizzes high and wide – but not by too much. The ‘old-boys’ are murmuring and becoming agitated. The scores from other games in the division are being shared and it looks like Plymouth are going to miss out on the playoffs.

On sixty-six minutes, Doncaster equalise. We have all seen it coming. Martin carries the ball inside, from the left, and arrows a shot into the bottom left hand corner from just outside the box. Doncaster fans, who have travelled in numbers to see their relegated side on the last day, celebrate. They have brought the obligatory inflatables with them and the beach balls are tossed up into the air again.

The rest of the second half peters out and I am grateful for the final whistle when it arrives. As the players and fans congratulate themselves on a decent season, we head out and start our journey home.

On the way, while travelling at low speed, a tyre blows out on our campervan. I am grateful that we had not been travelling at high speed and I replace the blown tyre at the side of the road. We get home fine.

Like our blown tyre, Oxford never quite achieved what they set out to. I hope they come back stronger next season and the fans get the stadium that the club and the city of Oxford deserve.

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